The title alone tells us that someone has died. We know that the girl who came before is going to exert an influence on the present-day protagonist; someone’s footsteps are going to be walked in once again. So how did the girl before come to her end?
The setting of THE GIRL BEFORE is all important and gives structure to a story that is essentially carried out with in four walls of one very spectacular and unusual house. There are shades of ‘Hal’ in this book too which are delicious, as in that an omnipresent technological mind is controlling the conditions thus manipulating the lives of the occupants of the house. Or is it really?
Poor self esteem, the classic pull of the bad boy and just seriously bad taste all come together to push the sanity of both past Emma, and present Jane. Is it an insult for an untidy person to occupy such a carefully crafted space or is the best creational work still in progress, as in the moulding of the occupant to the new home?
Author J.P. Delaney (a pseudonym) has written here a curiously oppressive work about two women who have occupied the same space in different periods of time. Both characters you literally wish to grab by the shoulders and deliver a good dressing down to, but both were chosen for their vulnerabilities and not their strengths. In this time where wanting less is a real angst of the privileged, the minimalistic setting of this book delivers its own clever and simmering threat of restraint, purposeful conduct and menace.
As in all best works of suspense, no one is quite who they seem and THE GIRL BEFORE deep dives into secret desires of three very modern people with frank aplomb. The ending does make you question just why you came to the conclusions that you did – maybe you overthought that one?
A very clever and absorbing book, THE GIRL BEFORE is a psychological thriller that delivers. Read the book now, as hopefully the big screen adaptation won’t be too far away.
Review - Tattletale, Sarah J. Naughton
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who believed in fairytales. Now she is out to get your happy ending.
One day changes Jody's life forever.
She has shut herself down, haunted by her memories and unable to trust anyone. But then she meets Abe, the perfect stranger next door and suddenly life seems full of possibility and hope.
If you happen to find yourself feeling slightly confused and muddled in the early chapters of TATTLETALE - hang in there. It takes a while for everyone and everything in this novel to fall into place, but once they do - hang on for the rest of the ride.
Using an unusual structure, and some really complicated character back-stories, TATTLETALE starts out with Mags receiving an unexpected phone call. Her estranged brother Abe is in hospital back in their native UK, and no-one seems to know what was behind his fall from the 4th floor of the converted church that he, Jody his fiancé and an array of neighbours all have flats within.
Megs feels compelled to head back to the UK, after many years working as a lawyer in the US, for reasons which are complicated and very emotional. It's obvious right from the start that the story of Mags and Abe's childhood is going to be fraught, but it seems that everybody here has similar baggage that they are lumping around. The woman by Abe's bedside - his fiancé Jody has her own troubled past, and she and Mags not only have to find a way to come to terms with Abe's condition, but with each other.
TATTLETALE has an intriguing plot, as Mags tries to find out more about the brother she hardly knows, and the truth behind the fall - was it suicide, an accident or an attempt on his life. All the while the crime may or may not be what happened to Abe. It could be part of the harrowing child sexual abuse and rape stories that are revealed as the narrative continues. It could really be a lot of other possibilities as things progress. One thing that TATTLETALE does particularly well is confuse and bewilder. An emotion the reader is quite free to assume that Mags is experiencing as well.
The character's portrayed are also complex and extremely believable. Mags is prickly, moody and wildly unpredictable at points. She's unsympathetic and yet she's there - at the side of a brother she's not seen for many years. There is much in her background that is revealed as the novel proceeds - and readers are left to decide if those revelations are enough to excuse the difficult persona. Jody is different, almost passive, and obviously profoundly troubled. Her concern and affection for Abe could be touching, or it could be uncomfortably cloying - it's left up to the reader to decide. Even the snippets of Abe's life, prior to the coma, are left open to reader interpretation. It seems he might possibly be hiding something - but whether or not you'll guess what that is before it's revealed is a combination of a keen eye for obscure details and a willingness to extrapolate.
In a novel that's likely to polarise opinions, there are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of opportunities for the reader to like, dislike, feel sorry for and want to throttle so many of the characters that it becomes quite the roller-coaster ride. For this reader, nothing in TATTLETALE was quite what it seemed, nobody quite who they were supposed to be and everything just slightly worse than you could have hoped it would turn out to be. It was therefore, compelling and frequently discomforting reading.
Review - Kingdom of The Strong, Tony Cavanaugh
If you are a previous reader to this series, you will know that Darian Richards operates under the direction of his own personal moral code, as determined solely by him. He is not one of those battered and brooding protagonists – it is more that he has given up caring about the larger world and has contented himself with the concerns of his small circle of people. Once he commits, he commits.
Author Tony Cavanaugh has had a long and illustrious career in film and tv and thus brings that excellent crafting of place and character to his crime novels. All of his creations are wholly convincing and though sketched with typical Australian economy, they are entirely recognizable in their landscape.
KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is strongly anchored to the Melbourne setting and the reader is very much travelling along the streets with investigator Darian Richards. The same themes do thread through the novels in this series; loss, redemption, loyalty and betrayal and KINGDOM OF THE STRONG gives a little illumination to the before, as in what Darian was like when he was operating, albeit loosely, within the parameters of the Victorian police force.
Darian Richards is one of those crime fiction characters that you want to know more about with each series entry. Darian’s world is familiar yet his slant on it is not. KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is another strong novel in a compelling series that powers forward with Darian’s insight into what is visible on the surface, and the underside which perhaps might not be seen, but is always present.
Review - Ragdoll, Daniel Cole
A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together like a puppet, nicknamed by the press as the 'ragdoll'.
Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William 'Wolf' Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.
The 'Ragdoll Killer' taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them.
With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?
Frequent readers of crime fiction tend to be over some plot element or standard form or another. It's hard to avoid getting a little jaded when a particular structure shows up time and time again - and in my case it's been serial killers for sometime now. Which does at least mean that it's a discomfortingly nice surprise when you come across an interesting twist on the tired old form.
Which, of course means, that you've taken a punt on something with a blurb that's guaranteed to be off-putting. For this reader there was something about the author's bio and the blurb of RAGDOLL that hinted at something out of the ordinary. Mercifully there didn't seem to be slightest indication (nor eventuality) that time would be spent in the killer's head, whilst they explained their twisted little justifications ad infinitum. Whatever it was that made me pick up RAGDOLL though, thank goodness it was there. This is a brilliant book, and I'm acutely aware how dodgy that sounds, what with the whole serial killer thing and all.
That's not to say that there's not a hefty serving of ick about the discovery of dismembered human remains, sewn together and strung up like a puppet. Hence the "Ragdoll Killer" nomenclature from the press.
That's not to say that there's not a stressed, fragile, and flawed central character. In fact Detective Wolf Fawkes raises each of those to a new high, and adds highly suspect into the bargain. His offsider is the only person who can work with him for a whole heap of complicated, nuanced or blazingly obvious reasons.
And it's definitely not to say that there's not quite a headliner to the whole serial killer plot - what with a list of intended victims, and the dates of their deaths delivered straight into the hands of a slightly less than eager member of the press - she being the ex-wife of Wolf Fawkes and all. His is, after all, the last name on the list and the divorce wasn't that acrimonious.
RAGDOLL has a beautifully twisted storyline, peopled with wonderfully flawed human beings, delivered a break-neck pace. There's enough surprising twists and turns to the plot elements to allow the standard clichés - like the tension with upper echelons, and the difficulties in forming working partnerships - play out against suspicion and the sheer weirdness of having a list of victims who the police are desperately trying to identify and protect. Then there's the complication of connecting the dots between them. What do a series of seemingly random killings have to do with each other, and does that answer provide even the vaguest hint about a killer who is resourceful, cunning and very deadly.
It's been a while since finishing a debut book made me mildly miffed I'd have to wait a while for the second in the series. Particularly as the end of RAGDOLL does not in anyway telegraph where a second might be heading, let alone starting out. Which statement is trying to be deliberately tantalising because really this is a debut book everyone should be reading - serial killer allergy or not.
Review - Blood Wedding, Pierre Lamaitre
The slippage is a gradual process for Sophie Duget. Small incidents like forgetting where she has parked her car, returning books to the library unread, mislaying her purchases. Not too much too worry about on their own but put together, and happening more often, these little incidents depict a life unravelling. Sophie once led an ordered life once but if she is honest, it was coming part well before her husband passed away. What propels her forward into a life on the run is the murder of a small child in her care.
There is much of the before in this novel, and there is also much of the after. Sophie can’t run from herself but as she struggles to make sense of her new present, it becomes a delirious ride where the reader needs to establish what events are the direct result of Sophie’s own actions or those of another. Sophie’s struggles to make sense of all that is happening to her are quite moving and the righteous anger does build up when you realize the depth of her predicament and the depth of resourcefulness she is going to need in order to survive.
Translated from French to English, some of the language in this ebook is a little mechanical but the economies of that narrative style serve well to punctuate how Sophie’s situation is growing more desperate. BLOOD WEDDING gives itself away fairly early in the piece as to the “who” but the “why is always pretty muddy. The motive, surprisingly, is not that important and the reader fascination lies with how on earth Sophie is going to safely extricate herself from the labyrinth of lies and imagined truths.
There is also a sense of familiar uneasiness with some of the earlier experiences of Sophie’s; those occasions where you question your own memory and wonder whether the odd lapses are all just part of normal behaviour. As they escalate in seriousness with Sophie, it becomes a tense and unstoppable read to a dramatic but fitting conclusion.
BLOOD WEDDING is a great novel to take with you on your next long journey or to indulge in over one or two sittings. The time will fly!
Review - The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, Mindy Mejia
Hattie Hoffman is the brightest of the bunch. A small town girl with big dreams, Hattie is counting the days until her high school graduation is all over and done with so she can proceed with the life that she really wants to lead; that of an aspiring actress in New York. Hattie loves her parents and enjoys hanging out with her friends but the Hattie they all see is an act. The real Hattie dwells within and is nothing like the girl everybody thinks they know.
THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN has a lot of balls in the air at once and does an admirable job with the interplay. As with any small town crime, the suspects are taken out of a smaller pool and you are able to examine each viewpoint for clues. Flipping between past and present it features the viewpoint of Hattie, the Sherriff tasked with investigating her murder and that of the new person in town, Peter Lund. There are only a few small irks with this read. Perhaps it’s too much of a sensitive insight but it does veer close to victim blaming. The strength of this read is in the cast of characters, all unique and drawn with economic strokes but with warmth and purpose.
Ignore all the book comparisons as it doesn’t do this clever little mystery justice; it is all about the journey here and the big reveal is not the tantalizing part of the read. THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN is a very satisfying read and deservedly one of the buzz books of the summer.
Review - The Whistler, John Grisham
The most corrupt judge in US history.
A young investigator with a secret informant.The electrifying new thriller.
Lacy Stoltz never expected to be in the firing line. Investigating judicial misconduct by Florida's one thousand judges, her cases so far have been relatively unexciting. That's until she meets Greg Myers, an indicted lawyer with an assumed name, who has an extraordinary tale to tell.
The Whistler is an issues novel that uses the framework of a legal procedural. In his recent Grey Mountain, Grisham took on the coal industry, in The Whistler it is the Indian-run casinos and the range of social and political issues that they raise. But in focussing too much on the issues he raises and their potential resolution, he loses sight of the need to for a legal thriller to thrill.
An informant (the whistleblower or ‘whistler’ of the title) brings a potential corruption case to the attention of the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. The allegation is that a Florida judge has been working with an organised crime gang and has been instrumental over the years in helping establish and then keep in business a casino on Tappacola land. This not only included favourably ruling on land deals but also possibly having an innocent man sentenced to death in return for a cut of the casino profits. For BJC Investigator Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch, this investigation promises to be the most far reaching of their careers. But as they start to investigate they soon find themselves well out of their depth and a target of criminal forces.
Despite some of the trappings of a thriller, The Whistler is rarely anything but a legal procedural. A combination of Board of Judicial Conduct investigation into a potentially corrupt judge and the FBI investigation into the organised crime group that she is working for. Grisham takes readers through the investigation – the lucky breaks, the building of a case, the presentation to the grand jury, the turning of key witnesses – step by step, occasionally providing the criminal’s point of view to solidify or explain some aspect of the plot. While there are undoubtedly some tragic and tense moments as the case builds, Grisham never loses sight of the legal processes that need to grind away to achieve a result.
This tale is made readable by Grisham’s experience in delivering an accessible description of those procedures, the way they operate and the complex web of corruption they are uncovering. His main characters, including Lacy, a strong middle age single woman are well drawn but have limited roles outside of furthering the investigation. And it is left to the minor characters including Lacy’s obnoxious but well resourced brother Gunther and her mysterious informant Greg Myers to add colour to the narrative.
The Whistler is John Grisham’s twenty-ninth legal thriller and once again shows that the formula which he practically invented in his early books – a combination of social commentary, legal shenanigans and fairly low key action that occasionally generates real thrills – is still working. But in The Whistler that formula doesn’t quite fire as it used to. Because after setting up for the bang of a thriller, The Whistler’s end game becomes a lengthy legal procedural whimper.
Review - Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz
When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She's worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It's just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway...
In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries to have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here).
Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon. The sixth part ends before the mystery is solved leaving both Susan and the reader in suspense. Susan then learns that Alan himself has committed suicide, complete with compelling suicide note. In her search to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders manuscript she begins to suspect that Alan’s death itself may not be all that it seems.
Horowitz clearly loves Agatha Christie and was desperate to write a Christie-style novel without being accused of just mimicking her. So he creates both Conway and Pünd and gives the punters what they so clearly want: an English village, two deaths, including the death of someone that every villager had a reason to hate and an inscrutable slightly foreign detective who makes gnomic observations that turn out to be true. Later, just in case the reader missed them, one of the characters in the “real world” lists the multiple Christie homages there are not only in the Conway’s Magpie Murders but in his previous Pünd adventures. And when the music stops, Horowitz gives readers a modern version of the cosy mystery with a different victim who many people had a reason to want to kill and a second set of suspects who were all slightly echoed in the original text. And through this second part, criticisms of the form – the complete lack of real character development, very little in the way of any political or social subtext, and the overly complex plots, the fact that it is considered to be ‘real literature’. But none of these criticisms prevent Horowitz delivering exactly that… twice.
While it at first appears that this might be reinventing or reinvigorating this sub-genre of crime, this is just homage. Horowitz finds himself going through the same motions – murder, range of suspects all of whom have a motive, critical clue, reveal. The only difference is that Atticus Pünd seems to know the answer pretty much from the get go while Susan takes a little longer to get to her solution.
People who love the golden age of detective fiction, who, as Susan puts it, like to curl up with a cosy mystery when it is raining outside knowing that everything will be explained at the end, or who spend their Friday nights in Midsomer (a place which gets named checked far too many times in this novel) will love Magpie Murders. But those who are looking for something original in their crime fiction should look elsewhere.
Review - Roger Rogerson, Duncan McNab
The gripping and graphic true story of Sydney's underbelly.
The verdict is guilty.
Even if you've only had a very fleeting interest in the goings on of one of Australia's most (in)famous cops, then ROGER ROGERSON is going to be an extremely intriguing read. Whilst it's the story of the man, and the myth that developed around him, it's also an important reminder of how that sort of myth building can skew law, order and society behaviour. For all the "bit of a rogue / hail fellow well met" persona that Rogerson built around himself, he shouldn't be a bit of a celebrity, or a figure of gentle affection for anybody and this book shows you exactly why.
McNab provides valuable insight into Rogerson's background, and that of his fellow-accused Glen McNamara, as an insider who knew all about them from his own days in the NSW Police Force, to contacts within the force and in the general community, and as an observer of the force from the point of a view of a journalist for many years. This is not just the story of the murder trial, it provides past and present angles that reader's may not necessarily have been given the opportunity to consider before. Particularly that of the Internal Affairs department, on whose desks various allegations against Rogerson have appeared over the years.
McNab is definitely no fan of Rogerson - and not just because he was directly threatened by the man when his first book on Rogerson (DODGER) was released. But he's not alone there, and the external persona that Rogerson was fond of portraying - the twinkle in the eye, the smiling, hearty bloke / one of the people façade is something that quite a few people had seen through a long time ago, alas with not quite enough evidence to be able to prove many of the allegations made. It also feels very much like McNab is scrupulously fair with his retelling of facts, and sometimes understandably acerbic in his observations. There was never any doubt in this readers mind about which was which.
The book ROGER ROGERSON also answered a heap of questions that were in this reader's mind when the charge of murder was first announced. It was hard to believe that somebody as wily and cunning as Rogerson would have been so easily caught out in such a murder. It was even harder to believe that McNamara - who spent years styling himself as a crusading ex-cop, committed to exposing paedophilia, virulently anti-drugs was somehow involved in a drug deal gone wrong. Stories of his researching a book seemed thin to say the least, but the gobsmacking bit was his hero-worship of Rogerson and the ease with which they seemed to have been identified as potential suspects in this crime. It seems that Rogerson might have been a handful in his day, but technology and conceit combined to make the untouchable very vulnerable.
This is a book that provides a lot of valuable and telling insights. Into corruption and how easily it can become entrenched. How backgrounds and stories can be built by individuals, and conflated by others for their own ends (there's a piece of political expediency here that should not have come as a particular surprise, but was still nonetheless startling). It's also a telling take on "celebrity crime" - criminals who are urban legends, or in this case, a corrupt and very dodgy cop who built himself into an urban legend, allowing everybody to conveniently ignore the damage and carnage left in his wake.